This is not a fun article to write. As much as the title might sound click bait-ish, frankly, this topic made me lose my appetite. But going to bed a little hungry once in a blue moon is more important than ignoring what’s real.
Trigger warning, though. If you’ve been assaulted, keep in mind that this topic might not be the best for your headspace. Your decision, of course.
OK, let’s start 5 years ago: I was in Indonesia, working. And I was lost. Not like afraid I was going to die in a ditch lost, but firmly uncertain where I was and how I was going to get back on track. And a young man--I found out later about 4 years younger than me--seemed to materialize out of thin air. One minute there’s no one in sight, the next minute he’s showing me around. He was kind, friendly, and eager. But let’s be honest, as long as he wasn’t scary, I would have paid attention. Like I said, I was lost.
I found out later that he knew some of the people I had been looking for. We weren’t really strangers after all. But I also found out later that the only reason he helped me was because he wanted to... let’s just say... get physical. This isn’t an assumption or self-flattery. I know because he told me. Repeatedly, as a matter of fact.
Why do I mention this? Because in that instance I was very firmly objectified. Specifically, he told me later that he’d decided I would be “his” because I was a little exotic and that was exciting to him. I’m glad I didn’t find all this out until later because when I did hear about it, my stomach sank; what I thought was a friendly, human-to-human experience ended up feeling dehumanizing.
What does this have to do with white supremacy? I’m a white lady and I was a guest in another country. If anyone was a colonizing force, wasn’t it me?
I’ll get to that in a moment. But as a brief (and I believe worthy) aside, I wrote about my experience with this man, but was advised to remove any mention of it from my work. The thinking was that I’d portray Indonesian culture in a poor light. I failed to see how that was the case because I wasn’t talking about “all” (or even most) Indoesian men, just this one person. I wanted to tell the truth about my lived experience as a woman at work in the world.
I wanted to open up a nuanced discussion about how, in this instance, I was a “desirable,” “exotic” token that my new friend thought would provide him a bit of fun. But the trope of the exotic foreigner is, like many things, situationally dependent. The trope of the hyper-sexual Latina, the hyper-fertile Black woman, the family-obsessed Muslim woman, the spiritual Indigenous woman, the incessantly worrying Jewish woman, and the doting Asian woman are all dehumanizing.
Dehumanization in all forms is gross. There’s no need to make it more gross and pit one form against another.
That might sound obvious. But the punchlines keep coming. And when a joke is flattering in the mind of the “joker,” it becomes the woman’s fault. The trope of the exotic woman or the doting woman isn’t kind because it’s not about her; it’s about failing to own one’s desire… and then making that internal failure into her fault.
There’s a world of objectification and dehumanization that permeates the experience of women the world over. Do we accomplish anything by arguing whose dehumanization is worse? Whose cartoonish movie portrayal is worse? Whose murder was worse?
I wrote a piece just the other day about how there is no hierarchy of oppression (in this case specifically between Asian women and Black women in the wake of the Atlanta murders). And I’ll re-state here: ranking oppression is an inherently objectifying activity. It boils humans down into one single category, where that one fact negates all of a person’s or a community’s nuance. We don’t accomplish anything when we use only race or only ethnicity or only gender as an all-encompassing token.
White supremacy and gender supremacy are similar ideologies. Both are built on objectification.
I confess, sometimes I keep my writing academic because when I really focus on dehumanization and murder, I cry. Or I can’t sleep. Or, like I shared with you about this article, I lose my appetite. But I don’t weep bigger or wetter or more poignant tears for any specific person’s murder. And if I start that someday, please come talk some sense into me.
OK, now the ick factor really sets in.
White supremacy has many, many forms. One is the Incel crowd, which is comprised of straight men who want to have sex with women who do not want to have sex with them. They aggrandize Donald Trump and their online fora repeatedly state that rape is a punchline. Clearly, in the case of Robert Long who just murdered 8 people, it’s not a joke.
And this isn’t the first time. The estimate is at least 47 Incel-related murders in the US alone just since 2019.
Awkwardly, this is where the discourse starts applying to the world of work. Junior staff--or the so-called “workforce”--are discussed in similarly objectifying terms. I’ve been in countless meetings with executives who are confused that it’s hard to hire people during COVID’s economic downturn. Never mind what the wages are in relation to cost of living or whether there are dignified opportunities for professional development.
Work is about survival when it’s just a paycheck. Work is about vocation when there’s an opportunity to grow and live with dignity. The trope of the happy worker is as dehumanizing as the trope of the doting woman: both exist only to service someone else’s needs.
OK, this is great and all but I have a job. Am I supposed to become some sort of social justice warrior? My to-do list is pretty long without adding “save-the-world” at the end there.
Per usual, my goal is to use best in class research and cutting edge practices to improve DEIB (diversity, equity inclusion, and belonging) in its many forms… in companies, communities, and in careers. And a huge part of DEIB work is curating that which usually goes unsaid. Sex is remarkably absent from converstion on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, power, and even sexual orientation. If Incels weren’t literal living proof that sex is intertwined with supremacist ideology, the ways that we hyper-sexualize, neuter, or otherwise de-humanize women of color certainly is.
Asian women--a phrase ludicrouly devoid of meaning given there are billions of humans across every corner of the globe in that category--are not the punchline to sex jokes. But they’re also not more or less human than other women. And the minute we start competing in the Oppression Olympics, is the minute we play into dehumanization.